Loosely related: Was Paradise Lost the first major work of literature to give "sympathy for the devil"?

In Paradise Lost, Lucifer/Satan appears to have at least some heroic characteristics, such as courage and (apparent) dedication to his comrades. His tragic flaw, of course, is his arrogance, with him declaring at one point "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."

He also set the events of the story in motion, including fomenting an all-out rebellion in Heaven as well as the fall of man, through his arrogance.

With that said, is he actually a tragic hero of sorts?

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    I up-voted, but you may want to consider changing to how he was a tragic hero. I just worry that the interpretation of what a tragic hero is could lead to answers you weren't looking for. Mar 26, 2018 at 22:57
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    The answer to this question probably depends on the definition of "tragic hero" you have in mind. As far as I know, this is a literary terms, but by writing "tragic hero of sorts" the questions becomes a bit ambiguous.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 14, 2022 at 11:02

2 Answers 2


In his introductory essay to the John Milton volume of 'Bloom's Critical Views' Harold Bloom called this question

the most famous and vexing of critical problems concerning Paradise Lost, the Satanic controversy itself. Is Satan in some sense heroic, or is he merely a fool?

Bloom calls the former camp the 'Satanists' and the latter he calls 'Anti-Satanists'. The essay is worth reading in full; it contains many threads of inquiry into other writers. Samuel Johnson and C.S. Lewis were Anti-Satanists, for example, and Bloom identifies William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley as the two original Satanist readers of Milton.

Bloom said Satan

is at once the aesthetic glory and the moral puzzle of Milton’s epic of loss and disillusion.

I am not well versed in Theology, but Bloom tries to give the basic background:

Milton believed in the doctrines of the Fall, natural corruption, regeneration through grace, an aristocracy of the elect, and Christian Liberty, all of them fundamental to Calvinist belief, and yet Milton was no orthodox Calvinist,

The hope for man in Paradise Lost is that Adam’s descendants will find their salvation in the fallen world, once they have accepted Christ’s sacrifice and its human consequences, by taking a middle way between those who would deny the existence of sin altogether, in a wild freedom founded upon a misunderstanding of election, and those who would repress man’s nature that spirit might be more free. The regenerated descendants of Adam are to evidence that God’s grace need not provide for the abolition of the natural man. To know and remember this as Milton’s ideal is to be properly prepared to encounter the dangerous greatness of Satan in the early books of Paradise Lost

Bloom spends a paragraph on the Anti-Satanists:

The anti-Satanist school of critics has its great ancestor in Addison, who found Satan’s sentiments to be “suitable to a created being of the most exalted and most depraved nature.... Amid those impieties which this enraged spirit utters ... the author has taken care to introduce none that is not big with absurdity, and incapable of shocking a religious reader.” Dr. Johnson followed Addison with more eloquence: “The malignity of Satan foams in haughtiness and obstinacy; but his expressions are commonly general, and no otherwise offensive than as they are wicked.” The leading modern antiSatanists are the late Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis, for whom Milton’s Satan is to some extent an absurd egoist, not altogether unlike Meredith’s Sir Willoughby Patterne. So Lewis states “it is a mistake to demand that Satan, any more than Sir Willoughby, should be able to rant and posture through the whole universe without, sooner or later, awaking the comic spirit.” Satan is thus an apostle of Nonsense, and his progressive degeneration in the poem is only the inevitable working-out of his truly absurd choice when he first denied his status as another of God’s creatures

As for the Satanists, Bloom says that no-one put it better than Coleridge, whom he quotes:

But in its utmost abstraction and consequent state of reprobation, the will becomes Satanic pride and rebellious self-idolatry in the relations of the spirit to itself, and remorseless despotism relatively to others; the more hopeless as the more obdurate by its subjugation of sensual impulses, by its superiority to toil and pain and pleasure; in short, by the fearful resolve to find in itself alone the one absolute motive of action, under which all other motives from within and from without must be either subordinated or crushed.

Summing up, Bloom says:

Each reader of Paradise Lost must find for himself the proper reading of Satan, whose appeal is clearly all but universal. Amid so much magnificence it is difficult to choose a single passage from Paradise Lost as surpassing all others, but I incline to the superlative speech of Satan on top of Mount Niphates (Book IV, ll.32–113), which is the text upon which the antiSatanist, Satanist or some compromise attitude must finally rest. Here Satan makes his last choice, and ceases to be what he was in the early books of the poem.

Read the speech here

Suffice it to say that we will probably not get this one done-and-dusted on the literature stackexchange. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try!

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    excellent answer thanks. may be worth noting that theists would say arrogance in front of God would condemn anyone
    – user5641
    Jan 21, 2022 at 11:16

There's a useful observation in Simone Weils Gravity and Grace, edited Gustave Thibon from her notebooks, which might help your confusion on this:

Literature and morality: Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren and boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore 'imaginative literature' is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both). It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art - and only genius can do that.

(Gustave Thibon classified this observation under the category of evil, in his thematic division of her book).

Given that she thought Shakespeare generally a second-rate author of plays (apart from King Lear), her standards were very high (but of course ought to argue that standards ought to be high - otherwise why have them?) So, I don't think she would count Milton as the kind of true genius who had the power of transmuting imaginative literature into the kind of transcendently real art, the kind of art that points at the real, even on the unreal plane that imaginative literature plays on, that she was looking for.

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